Death raises questions about luge track, Canadian competitiveness

Athletes feel like 'lemmings' thrown down 'exceedingly dangerous' course

A collective cry went out at the Main Media Centre this morning when video featuring the horrific crash of Georgian luger, Nodar Kumaritashvili was broadcast into the main hall. The 21-year-old racer died at the Whistler Sliding Centre — following his second crash in just two days. His death cast an immediate pall over Vancouver, where the opening ceremonies are set to begin in just two hours.

Both International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge and John Furlong, chief executive of the Vancouver Organizing Committee addressed reporters this afternoon. Both donned black suits and black ties and appeared visibly shaken by the day’s event.

“This is a very sad day,” said Rogge. “The IOC is in deep mourning. Here you have a young athlete who lost his life pursuing his passion.”

“We are heartbroken beyond words,” said Furlong. “The accident is tragic. It will be investigated and when we know the results you will be informed.”

Even before the accident, questions about the “exceedingly dangerous,” 1,450-m-long course — the fastest on earth — were being raised. The top speed reached at the track at Fitzsimmon’s Creek, on Blackcomb Mountain is 153.93 kph. Kumaritashvili was believed to have been travelling at 143.3 kph.

In training runs Thursday, both Guntis Rekis of Latvia and Stefan Hoehner of Germany had high-speed crashes. “My goals are to stay alive, not break bones,” Rekis told reporters. “I was scared a bit.”

“I think they are pushing it a little too much,” Australia’s Hannah Campbell-Pegg said Thursday night after she nearly lost control in training. “To what extent are we just little lemmings that they just throw down a track and we’re crash-test dummies? I mean, this is our lives.”

“I’ve never slid that fast,” Maya Pedersen, a Swiss gold-medallist told Maclean’s last February.

Although both the international luge and bobsleigh federations declared the track safe and Games-ready a year ago, the International Luge Federation (FIL) president Josef Fendt of Germany told reporters that the sporting body wanted less-experienced, and less-talented lugers to have more training time at the WSC prior to the Vancouver Games. Fendt also said the protective devices near the track’s curb were too short, and needed to be lengthened so athletes were protected from flying from the track.

Questions will likely also be raised about Canada’s aggressive pursuit of the home ice advantage in Vancouver and Whistler.

Earlier this week, Andy Schmid, the performance director of British Skeleton called the Canadian decision to limit practice time for overseas competitors (compared to the more than 300 runs set aside for Canadian athletes) as irresponsible. “Please, let there be no accidents there because that could kill the sport,” he told Britain’s Telegraph.

“People have the argument that it’s just home advantage and that’s normal for an Olympic host country, but it’s different for sports involving high speed. Can you imagine in Formula One nobody being allowed on a track because somebody has home advantage?”

No one yet knows how the crash will affect tonight’s Opening Ceremonies at BC Place, or the luge event itself, set to begin Saturday, with the men’s singles. Luge training at Whistler has been suspended.